“There is this expression in China that YOU KNOW THE COLOUR OF FASHION NEXT SEASON BY THE COLOUR OF THE RIVERS IN CHINA”, Ellen MacArthur. Does not it sound like fashion is one of the most polluting industry in the world then?
I guess I must start this post by refuting my title because the truth is that we hear and read that fashion is the 2nd most polluting industry in the world after oil industry but I could not read it in any environmental impact report I read. However, I still believe somehow it is true and I will tell you why.
Some of the worst industries in term of pollution are agriculture, oil, road transport, fuel and electricity, livestock, …. So, for sure we do not think of those industries when we think fashion, clothes, shoes, and outfit but in reality, fashion industry has got a part in all of these industries.
Because cotton which is a really thirsty plant (and is far from being the nicest fibre to use but I will explain why after) is an agricultural product.
Because many fibres like polyester are made out of plastic which is a petroleum product.
Because we need electricity or gas to power the factories.
Because at least part of the journey of the fibres, the fabrics and then the clothes is done by trucks.
And let’s not talk about leather which is obviously connected to livestock.
Those are just examples to illustrate how much fashion can be part of the environmental crisis but also how much it is hard to measure and quantify the pollution created by fashion industry, as fashion involves extensive and diverse supply chains of raw materials, manufactures, clothing factories, shipping, retail but also disposal of the garments. However, one thing is for sure – by lowering the carbon footprint and the emissions made by fashion industry, we could lower the emissions made by those really polluting industries I mentioned above.
Furthermore, if we go into the fashion world of dyes, and nature fibres we realise that there is a tremendous amount of pesticides used in order to produce cotton, but also some awfully toxic dyes used in order to manufacture the nicest t-shirts on the shelves of your favourite store. And guess what, ALL OF IT IS GOING IN THE WATER STREAMS.
In the last 20 years clothes production worldwide has doubled which means that today a typical person buys 60% MORE CLOTHES EVERY YEAR but DISCARD THEM TWICE FASTER than before. In Australia, in the United-States or in many developed countries in general, around 85% OF CLOTHES ARE SENT TO LANDFILLS.
Then, you would probably say that we need to recycle those textiles instead of throwing them away but:
X First, the developing countries start to be tired of receiving all the trash of developed countries as it is the case for China. China imports the biggest quantity of recycled garments in the world and has dealt with pollution from fashion for many years as most of recycled garments from all around the world end up there and are turned into “brand-new” yarn. Therefore, lately China decided to ban the importation of several solid materials, and textile is one of them.
X Second, recycling is not as easy as it seems because most of the garments are a mix of several natural fabrics and/or synthetic ones which means THAT IT IS ACTUALLY MORE TIME CONSUMING AND MORE RESOURCE INTENSIVE TO RECYCLE CLOTHES THAN TO “SIMPLY” THROW THESE “OLD TRASHY” CLOTHES AND PRODUCE NEW GARMENTS.
Thus, the best might not be to recycle by hook or by crook but to implement A CIRCULAR ECONOMY FOR TEXTILES
And the good thing is that huge brands like Nike or H&M already signed up to carry out the circular economy idea into their fashion lines but for now nothing really happened or could look like a “greenwashing” …
Yet, what are THE 4 PILLARS OF FASHION POLLUTION?
1.The intensive use of water
Let’s talk about cotton. You see organic cotton written on the tag and you think that definitely it is a smarter choice than the other item. But think of it, even if it is organic first of all it is cotton and it can take more than 15000 litres of water to make a T-shirt and one jeans. In other words, to produce a single tee we need up to 2700 litres of sweet water which is equal to 3 YEARS OF DRINKING WATER.
So now you might be tempted to think synthetic clothes! But although synthetic fibres do not need as much water they are debatable in term of pollution and sustainability. Plus, anyway ALL THE FABRICS ARE GOING TO BE DYED WITH CHEMICALS…
If we go a bit deeper into the “water world”, fashion industry needs a lot of fresh water and is going to make undrinkable all this used fresh water, and again the one which is really thirsty is cotton.
1kg of fabric material needs from 100 to 150 litres of water, which is about 600 glasses of water. To make this industry using even more sweet water, every year the fashion industry dyes about 28 billion of kg of fabrics and to do so, 5 TRILLION OF WATER is used.
COTTON which is in 40% of the apparels IS ALSO REALLY DEPENDENT ON CHEMICALS LIKE INSECTICIDES AND HERBICIDES which will simply end up in waterways and so pollute the soils and waters. Nope they do not stay just under the crops. This is a threat to the human health and ecosystems.
It is assessed that 20% OF THE WORLD’S WATER POLLUTION COMES FROM THE TREATMENT AND DYING OF FABRICS.
2.Our dear globalisation and fashion world and their carbon footprint
Globalisation is amazing but has got its share of cons as well. Being able to work with people from all around the world also means that the garments you bought have probably travelled a fair bit of the world, and perhaps in a container ship fuelled with fossil fuels. In addition, globalisation means the production of those clothes had probably involved several countries with the production of cotton, the fabrication of yarns and fabrics, the sewing process and so on. In fact, as the cost of workers increases in China, more and more clothes companies move to places like Bangladesh, Philippines or Pakistan where it is cheaper to manufacture apparels. However, those countries often do not have the raw materials and must ship them from India or China for instance.
It is pretty impossible to measure the quantity of fuel used to ship apparels, but a fact is that 22 billion of garment items are bought by Americans every year, and only 2% of them are manufactured on American ground. All in all, annually around 90% of clothes are transported by container ship.
Talking about container ships, cancer and asthma can be caused by the pollution created by commercial ships, as one can be AS POLLUTING AS 50 MILLION CARS IN ONE YEAR – and remember that those ships consume fuel by tons per hour! Therefore, pollution created by the shipping industry starts to have an effect on the coastal and inland populations, the regulation of these emissions is non-existent though.
Moreover, as you may know, nowadays the fashion retailers create huge demand for disposable cheap clothes and it is a big problem in term of carbon footprint. In other worlds the clothes we purchase keep impacting the environment even after they have been purchased as they will be washed numerous times and then thrown away in landfills.
Globally speaking, FASHION IS ABOUT 10% OF CARBON EMISSIONS so basically it is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
Cheap synthetic fibres can emit N2O during manufacturing which are worse than CO2 because it is 300 times more harmful. Many of them like nylon are made from petrochemicals and those ones are NO WAY BIODEGRADABLE!
Today, because we are in this consumerism world and we must produce always more and buy always more, discarded plastic polymer products start to be considered to make “recycled polyester”. A greener alternative? Perhaps partially. The idea is to reuse all these plastic bottles instead of throwing them in the landfills but they will need to be cleaned and the labels will have to be removed as well and as it is an irksome work only poor or developing countries will accept to make the job and so those bottles will be ship there using again dirty fossil fuels.
Don’t get it wrong, even if it sounds like an ok option, it is greenwashing as the quantity of plastic bottles recycled is still really low and so the big companies cannot have enough bottles to make polyester. Therefore, some suppliers dare to buy unused bottles to make their polyester garments and so put a tag on them “RECYCLED”, isn’t it cynical?
3.Die for dyes
Almost 20% OF THE WORLD WATER IS POLLUTED BY FASHION industry thanks to the 40000 to 50000 tons of dye the industry discharges in the waterways. Knowing most of dyeing infrastructures tend to be in developing countries where legislation can be blurred, the companies have no issues with the idea of pouring untreated wastewater containing mercury, arsenic, lead in the rivers around, which will obviously end up in the seas and oceans of the world.
It is also possible to find nonylphenol as one of the chemical which remains in our clothes, but nonylphenol is considered to be an endocrine disruptor, and actually this chemical stay in our garments, it will only come out after couple of washes. Consequently, European Union decided to ban clothes containing this chemical, but the United-States did not…
4.Let’s discard everything…even the new garments
Today, “shopping” and buying clothes and accessories is a normal hobby and everything is done to make us spend always more money and always buy more clothes – WELCOME TO THE FAST FASHION WORLD.
In fast fashion, everything must be sold quickly to be able to put a new garment on the same hanger. Fast fashion managed to make us crave for new clothes and make us feel unconfident if we do not have the last trend in our wardrobe. There are NEW DISPOSAL CHEAP CLOTHES EVERY SINGLE WEEK!
Always more clothes in order to throw them away in landfills and so we accelerate global warming.
Yet, let’s be honest not everyone can purchase his/her clothes in expensive organic apparel brands, these giant retailers are so much more affordable. Sadly, often the quality is not present in those cheap clothes which makes those garments falling apart after few washes. And even when the quality is still there, the fast fashion bug makes people throwing away their clothing items after 1 or 2 uses.
However, it is more and more common to hear about the down side of fashion industry, so some brands do their best to cultivate a greener image because after all it is all about image. For example, H&M created H&M Conscious which gives the promise to bring us more choices good for people, earth and our wallet. But what is truly sustainable in this statement when you know that H&M is one of the biggest fashion retailers in the world and sales several tens of billions of items each year? The matter of a GREENWASHING is questionable.
Fortunately, some famous brands like Etiko, Patagonia, Kathmandu, Adidas, Stella McCartney, C&A have the desire to reform the fashion industry using more organic cotton or even more organic linen or hemp, reducing carbon emissions and water use to name a few. Nevertheless, a real change will exist when the big fast fashion brands will decide to make and sell real sustainable ethical apparels.
For now, we can all do a little something to this by changing where we purchase and what we shop 😉
Thus what do you think, is not fashion industry the 2nd most polluting industry in the world even without the figures proving this fact?
If you want to go deeper into this topic and the importance of changing the fashion industry, there are these 3 reports that I find pretty interesting, one is from Climate Works Foundation trying to measure the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel, one is from the Changing Markets Foundation about toxic fibres, and Footwear Industries and, the other one is from Ellen MacArthur Foundation and an idea on Redesigning Fashion’s Future.